New Orleans, La. –
Local seafood plays a role in all kinds of things besides recipes in Louisiana, a relationship that helps explain some of the deep dread that sprang up as the BP oil disaster imperils it.
Seafood gets entwined with a facet of the local identity, with the culture of camps and docks, with feasts of casual plenty in surroundings that so often exude the Louisiana sense of place. You know such settings when you see them, and you can't miss seeing it at Frenier, a notch on the western edge of Lake Pontchartrain in St. John the Baptist Parish.
Frenier is essentially a collection of camps built around a boat launch in a clearing of cypress forest off Hwy. 51, the ground-level predecessor to Hwy. 55 leading north from LaPlace. A few years back, New Orleans native Louie Lipps started a snoball stand to serve the boat launch crowd here. Like everything else in Frenier, the stand was elevated high on pilings and Lipps soon developed the space beneath as the Crab Trap. More camps are cropping up here now, as are restaurants. Frenier Landing, an impressively designed, mid-range seafood place, opened on the water's edge last year, while the burger and seafood joint Gilligan's by the Lake will open soon a few paces inland.
Meanwhile, the Crab Trap remains a picture of rudimentary make-do that is both charming and efficient. Its indoor space is defined by plastic sheets stretched between pilings, though most people sit outside around plastic tables, the better to enjoy the lake breeze and cool blue view while working through boiled crabs and clusters of longnecks. When the lake periodically surges over Frenier during storms, Lipps can basically hose down the Crab Trap space and start over. The water is close at hand, and none of the regulars around Frenier seems ruffled by alligator sightings in the boat launch.
Lipps grew amid trappings not too different from this scene. In the early 1960s, his parents ran one of the great old joints stilted over the eastern New Orleans lakefront in Little Woods, a place called Frank & Rita's Mama Lou's Seafood Restaurant. As a young man, he helped his father run a shrimp boat from Venice and he now works crab traps on the lake that partially supply his restaurant.
As the gravel and grass parking lot fills with boat trailers on weekend afternoons, Lipps stays busy beneath the sno-ball stand tending boiling pots and vats of sauce for New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp. Crabs, hacked into chunks, are cooked in the same buttery, pepper-dark sauce, crowded with handfuls of chopped garlic. The boiled seafood, together with corn, potatoes and hot sausage, is brought to the table on platters lined with newspaper stockpiled for months, so you may get the thrill of rereading past Saints glory while eating today's catch.
Though Frenier is a bit obscure as dining destinations go, Lipps has seized on a memorable marketing handle, calling the scene there "the new West End," a reference to the concentration of seafood restaurants on the New Orleans lakefront wrecked by successive hurricanes. On weekend evenings, with the sun setting over the water and boats coming in for the day, with people pulling up for dinner and kids running around with sno-balls as their parents work through piles of crabs and shrimp, the tag certainly feels right. No one in south Louisiana can take even the most quintessential scenes of our region for granted anymore.
If you go:
Crab Trap, Peavine Road (off Hwy. 51), Frenier, 985-651-4150; open for lunch and dinner Fri.-Sun. seasonally
Frenier Landing, Dottie Ln. (off Hwy. 51), Frenier, 985-224-2071; open for lunch Wed.-Sun. and dinner daily